The Story so far....
Morris Men were formed in the early part of last century reviving
the Morris traditions that were seen to be fading in the villages
of the Cotswolds. The exact year of formation has always been a mystery,
however, through recent research the following account vividly depicts those
THE EARLY YEARS OF THE GLOUCESTERSHIRE MORRIS MEN
Note: Rob Harrison (RH), a current member of the Gloucestershire Morris Men, has inspired Lionel Parkhouse (LP) to compile this short account of the side from its beginnings in the 1930s up to the first scrapbook which was begun by Pat Snelling in the late 1950s. Rob interviewed Jim Jefferies (JJ), a pre-war member of the side which was then known as the Cheltenham Morris Men, in 1994. Rob subsequently wrote a summary of the interview, which was circulated among various senior members of the side for their comments, including Tony Drake (TD), Ron Upton(RU),~ Gwilym Davies (GD), who had earlier interviewed Gerry Phelps (GP); and Muriel Phelps (MP), Gerry ‘s widow. Muriel has also kindly supplied some of the old photographs which have been incorporated into this paper.
Thanks to the resurgence of interest in traditional dancing caused by the activities of the folk dance and music collectors Cecil Sharp, Percy Granger, Vaughan-Williams and others in the early years of the 20th century, by the mid to late 1920s folk dance was still quite highly regarded by the intelligentsia and it was considered to be a perfectly respectable pastime (JJ).
Jim Jefferies came from a musical family and he and his sister were quite interested in country dancing. His earliest recollection of getting involved in folk was when his sister persuaded him one day in 1928 to play the fiddle for the local country dance team who used to meet at the Bayshill Unitarian Chapel in Cheltenham. In those days the country dance team was interested not only in country dancing but in morris and sword dancing too. Jim showed me a photograph, taken some years later, of six men and women, the men dressed in baldrics “morris style”, with their teachers Miss Hancock and Miss Pat Hitch, whose mother played the piano for the dancing. Many of the dancers in the Bayshill Social Club also danced with the Cheltenham Country Dance Club, which was affiliated to the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Jim remembered that Miss Audrey Armstrong (who later became the EFDSS Gloucestershire District Secretary) taught them morris (RH).
The District minutes of the 1930s often refer to the annual Country Dance Festival held at Bathurst Park, Cirencester, mentioning that “The Morris Men” would be dancing. [The Photo below shows "the Morris Men" joining in a country dancing display in the grounds of Cheltenham College, probably in the early 1930s]
At what point the name Cheltenham Morris Men came into existence is uncertain, but the First Log Book of the Bagman of the Morris Ring records that the Cheltenham Morris Men were formally presented with their stave (i.e., they were admitted to the Ring) at the12th Meeting of the Morris Ring, held at Cecil Sharp House in London on Saturday 12th March 1938. (LP)
We also know that they attended a ring meeting in 1938 at the Unicorn Hotel in Stow-on-the-Wold, where 75 men were present for the Saturday evening feast. The Ring Bagman’s spirits were drooping, as this was 25 more men than he had been led to believe would be eating. It is noted in the Log Book that “...the feast was not the gastronomic success that had been hoped for, but after a good deal of preliminary chaos, food was at last procured and in a series of relays the Feast reached a conclusion.” (RH)
There were other dance sides in the local area before the war, one in Sapperton and one in Dursley. One of the leading lights associated with these sides was Alf Cobb who was an excellent dancer (well known for his Bacca Pipes jig, see photo left) and an excellent fiddler (although it was said that he played too fast!), and who played on occasions for the Cheltenham Men and also for the newly named Gloucestershire Men just after the war (GP).
Alf was also renowned for playing the saw - an ordinary woodsaw which he played with a violin bow, obtaining different notes according to how much he flexed the saw (LP). He had won (or Dursley had won) many competitions.
The festivals at the time were very competitive, and Gerry Phelps won certificates for dancing morris jigs in 1939 or 1940 (MP). One of the other Dursley Men was Eric White who taught them morris and was an excellent dancer, being renowned for his “Ladies’ Pleasure” jig,
|and he also danced with the Cheltenham Men (JJ). The Dursley Men, besides doing morris, also did a mummers play called “Rags and Tatters”.|
Some of the Cheltenham Morris Men who danced or played just before the war were:
Stanley Randolf from Whiteway
Joe Bosworth from Cirencester
Eric White from Dursley
Mr Hill, also from Dursley
Jim Ersall from Cheltenham
Michael Cardhew (pipe and tabor), a potter
Jack Gilbert, a piano player
Alex Hope, another piano player, who was an epileptic. On one occasion during a public performance he had a fit and grabbed a lady’s foot as he lay full-length on the floor; but the woman showed great presence of mind and didn’t move a muscle until his fit had passed.
Freddie “Mouche” Moucheron, a Belgian who was a refugee from the First World War.
Alan Williams from Cheltenham
Ken Twinning from Shurdington (JJ)
Before the war the Men had worn brown and yellow waistcoats, but in the 1940s, they wore brown, orange and yellow baldrics instead (or as well). Apparently these were the colours used by the Bayshill Social Club originally (JJ), although MP points out that they are very similar to those of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers.
During the war Mrs Dorothy (“Padge”) Williams (who later on became District Treasurer) taught country dancing once a month on Saturday afternoons at County Club which was held at Pate’s Junior School in Cheltenham, where she also included some morris for both men and women (GP).
Around the time of the end of the war, Padge Williams taught morris at the Bayshill Hall to the remnants of the Cheltenham Morris Men including Joe Bosworth, Alan Williams (her husband), “Mouche” Moucheron and Ken Twinning, together with Gerry Phelps and Bill Middleton, and Tony Drake and Ron Upton who joined them in 1947 or 1948. “Mrs Hitch obliged at the piano, putting her knitting on keys beyond where she would be playing and resumed knitting while we argued what to do next” (TD). The Men also sometimes practised at Cranham Chapel: on one occasion when Jim Jefferies was playing the fiddle for them, Gerry Phelps knocked over an oil lamp they were using and almost burnt the place down! (JJ)
It was not long before the Cheltenham Morris Men decided to rename themselves as the Gloucestershire Morris Men, which was a truer description since very few actually lived in Cheltenham - and there was at that time no other active morris side in the County. The newly christened side first danced out in public at Stanton on May Day 1946 to celebrate the Soldiers’ Homecoming and the opening of some cottages for ex-soldiers in the village (RH). Lionel has a video of an old newsreel of this which was broadcast on BBC2 around 1990. Although the film is in black and white, the dancers are clearly wearing the old Cheltenham baldrics, together with grey trousers, because whites were unavailable during the war and for some time after (LP). The photograph below was taken on the same occasion.
The photographs below were press cuttings taken at Cirencester Park during 1951 and it can be seen that the "greys" were still being worn.
White trousers became available in 1952, and for a while the Men continued to wear the old Cheltenham baldrics together with some new waistcoats, individually decorated. (See Photos below)
At Bayshill the morris was an addition to the normal country dancing, and was initially allocated a slot at the beginning of the evening from 7.00 to 7.30. “The extra time for morris spread on towards 8 o’clock and the ladies protested we were pinching their English folk dancing time, so it was decided to meet separately, and the Hitches fixed up for us to use Shurdington Village Hall, with its bouncing floor” (TD). Mrs. Hitch’s daughter Pat made the men new baldrics with the dark red webbing supplied from Tony Drake’s shop in Winchcombe Street in Cheltenham. “It must have been lying there since before the war, because I still have mine which has never faded - unlike more recent batches which change colour after very few years” (LP). Pat Hitch also made the new, more distinctive blue, yellow and red rosettes. To complete the costume, the men purchased straw hats and decorated them with wax fruits (TD).
After a short time in the early 1950s, “a crisis arose at an annual meeting with no one willing to be squire or bagman. Rather than see the side fold up, Nibs Matthews, despite being a full time member of the EFDSS staff responsible for the whole of the Western Area, agreed to be squire, and I [Tony Drake] became bagman. The photo below was taken on the Whit Monday tour on the 17th June 1954 and shows the Gloucestershire Morris Men with Nibs Matthews as Squire (facing the camera).
The first task was to recruit more men so that we could be sure of fulfilling engagements without getting firm promises of attendance. We also needed musicians for outdoor performances. Alf Cobb had played his fiddle occasionally, but you need more volume outdoors. A red-letter day was when not one but two accordionists turned up on the same night. Bill Owen was one and became a regular player. The other was Duncan Blackburn, a brilliant musician but not so regular as Bill”(TD).
“When I joined GMM in 1956, the practice venue had changed to Gloucester Road School. The existing regular members were Gerry Phelps, Ken Twinning, Bill Middleton, Tony Drake, Tony Barrett, Ron Upton and Bill Owen (accordion). Nibs Matthews and two or three students joined us occasionally, and by 1960 the numbers had swelled by the addition of John Parsons, Alex Hamilton and Bob Bishop. Another low point had occurred in 1958 or 1959, when at the AGM the squire Ron Upton could get no one to take on the office of Bagman. To avoid the folding of the side, Bill Middleton eventually saved the day by volunteering. Since then the side has never looked back, and our very successful Ring Meeting in Cheltenham in 1962 brought in quite a sizeable intake. We were honoured in that Nibs Matthews had recently been elected Squire of the Ring.” (LP).
Footnote: It is quite remarkable to note that two of the men mentioned above, John Parsons and Lionel Parkhouse are still members of the side today in 2010!
At some point the history of the side from the early 1960s to present will be documented as there is a wealth of archive material kept in a library of scrapbooks detailing events. During that time the side has gone through its natural ups and downs, but has remained generally strong. Normally these days there are between 20 and 30 active dancers at any one time who undertake a very full programme of performances each year including many overseas tours and representations. There is no formal membership of the side, "once a Gloucestershire man, always a Gloucestershire man". This means that men can drift off for years, (and they do) but, if they turn up in their kit, they are always welcome.